Eating My Brownie

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You, Gentle Reader, are probably far too fine a person to have ever watched the rom-com Notting Hill ("I'm just a girl, looking at a boy, waiting for him to love me," etc.), but I confess that I did, long ago, and what sticks with me, all these years later, rather than Julia's winsomeness or Hugh Grant naked (was Hugh Grant naked?  you see:  I can't remember) is the scene when they're all sitting around some table having dinner and the biggest loser gets to have the brownie or something.  And they all go around and eventually Julia wins, I think, because all she has to do is widen her eyes and she wins everything, but that's not my point here today.

My point is precisely that whole biggest-loser thing and how very British they noted it was in the film and how shockingly un-American it seemed to me, even at the time.  And what a great relief it seemed like it would be:  to share that kind of thing with your friends and then be able to laugh about it.   And then eat the brownie.

I was talking to my graduate class a bit about this the other night--no, not about Notting Hill, lest they think me Unserious and thus Unworthy to teach them.  But about how career writers--career anything, I suppose--are always having to list their shiny accomplishments, and how it would be such a great relief sometime to write up your Anti-Vita and let people see it.  It would be such a moment of candor, of behind-the-curtain truth.  All the awards you didn't get, all the amazing journals your work wasn't good enough to be published in, all the prizes you were nominated for but--oops!--didn't actually win.  Sigh.  All the teaching innovations, trotted out with such high hopes, that failed miserably.  And so on.  How you sat at home on the sofa and muttered, "What's the point?," embarrassing yourself and boring your family members, who tiptoed quietly away.

Revealing all the failures would be such a relief, such an exhale, such an "I'm nobody, who are you?" opportunity.  The topic was on my students' minds because we were doing a session on publishing, and grad students in our program send things out a lot, and it was on mine as well, because I've very recently been nominated for a thing, and part of the process of winning this particular thing is having to write a little statement that talks about me and my accomplishments, and I hate the awkwardness of those, as many people do.  You think that once you've written that beastly personal essay to get into college you'll never have to compose such a dreadful piece of writing again, but it's not true.  You keep having to.  And they don't get any easier.  You basically have to make yourself sound brilliant while simultaneously seeming tremendously humble and unaware of the fact that you're just so stupendously brilliant you change the lives of everyone around you without even meaning to.  To brag without bragging.  It's an existential misery.

In light of this, I was thinking about the Pushcart Prize I did not win last year with the essay "Grip," which was nominated separately by two separate people, and what a painful disappointment it was, the day that I was at a reading and somebody else's hot-out-of-the-oven Pushcart got announced, so I knew the announcements had been made, so I knew I hadn't won, and I had to stand there and smile when what I wanted was a good stiff drink, something iced and bitter. 

I thought of "Grip," and I thought of the gorgeous fat grant I'd been nominated for but not won because I was "too far advanced," and it was for emerging writers, and of not getting to be a Bread Loaf Fellow despite being nominated twice by excellent former Fellows, and about the writer who got very excited about me back in 1999 when I gave a reading in a big city and how he kept calling me "the writer who came out of nowhere," but I wasn't, I went right back to nowhere and stayed there, writer-wise, for several more years, and one could definitely say that in the big scheme of things I'm still a resident of that province.  I have seen entire trees grow up there. 

I didn't tell my students any of that, though, because a reputation for being maudlin is hard to overcome.  But it was on my mind.  And of course, the fact that THE DESIRE PROJECTS has been on editors' desks for ten whole days now without a Wall Street run on it does not help.

And for everyone who's thinking, Focus on the work, Joy.  It's about the work.  It's about doing the writing, not Being a Writer--well, that's very good advice, and it's the advice I give my students and writer-friends when they're despondent, and it's the advice I give myself, because it's true.  It has sustained me.  It has taken me back to my pen and my notebook again and again, day in, day out.  

And yet.  Once one has thrown one's hat in the ring with that first manuscript one kisses for luck and pushes through the mail-slot, one wishes--wishes hard--for recognition.  One just does.  One is human, and one does.  Plus, I'm a multi-tasker.  I can put my butt in the chair and the pen to the page while still wishing for a glossy accolade or two. 

So it came as a pleasant surprise this morning when I received a congratulatory email from a novelist-friend, the literary maven and man's man, ladies' man, man about town Timothy Schaffert (who composes beautiful sentences), very kindly congratulating me on having that very same not-good-enough essay get included in the Notables section of Best American Essays 2010.  And it is.  And I feel very excited to have been rejected by Christopher Hitchens for full inclusion in the actual pages of the collection, because I have always admired his erudition and obnoxiousness, I sincerely have, I wish I had that kind of intellectual confidence, and just the thought that the series editor culled "Grip" from the herd and brought it to Hitchens's attention and Hitchens waved his magisterial hand and said, "No, not quite," is enough to make me very happy.  Thank you, Robert Atwan.  Thank you.

Two graduate students from here, or I guess they're both former graduate students now (?--can't keep up), are also included, so congratulations to Carrie Shipers and Dave Madden, who are smart, lovely people and fantastic writers. 

Also my friend Heather Sellers is in there among the distinguished also-rans with me, and so is my new acquaintance Dinty Moore, who's a wonderful writer and a very funny man.  So are Sandra Cisneros and Cheryl Strayed and Floyd Skloot and lots of other lovely writers.  So it's awfully nice company to be in.

I've put "Grip" on the website so you can read it if you want--it's only 2 pages--but its availability is only temporary, because my lovely and perspicacious editor Kristen Elias Rowley visited that very same graduate class last Wednesday, and one of the "Don'ts" she listed for authors was putting all your work up on your website when you're going to have a collection come out.  (The whole why-buy-the-cow principle.)  And I don't know if she glanced sternly at me when she said that, or if I just imagined it because I had a guilty conscience, but I'll definitely be taking "Grip" down soon, because it's included in ISLAND OF BONES, and if there's one thing you don't want, it's your editor mad at you.



 

Comments:

Faye said:

Hi Joy,

Heart-felt congratulations on your notable mention! I read "Grip" in Fourth Genre, and of course, the mention is more than well deserved.

Faye

P.S. OK, I'll admit it. I've seen Notting Hill. More than once. Look, I lived in London, OK? I watched it for the... nostalgia of the scenery. Yeah, that's it. The scenery.

P.P.S. OK, OK. Pass the brownie.

September 27, 2010 4:17 PM

fayepoet said:

You take my breath away, the ease with which you write what is in my heart today--rainy, can't dig in the garden dirt, always satisfyingly concrete, must focus on yet another revision to send off one more time, etc.,etc.
I can't wait for the Best American Essays 2010 to come out- all under one cover- you and so many of my favorites, including Floyd Skloot whom I so admire all. Talk about persistence in the face of adversity.
I hope more good news comes your way soon.

September 27, 2010 7:41 PM

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